Over the top - the Pamir Highway

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August 5th 2007
Published: October 25th 2007
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the Pamir Highwaythe Pamir Highwaythe Pamir Highway

next to Alichur
As I wrote last time, we arrived safely in Alichur and checked in to the home stay of the local English teacher, a 50 year old woman.
She was living with her husband, two of her children and a nephew who was on visit from Khorog.
We explored the "huge" village and found out that it is half Tajik and half Kyrgyz, with the city hall in the middle.
The Tajiks live in the Western part, where you find a Tajik shop and houses, whereas the Eastern part of the village is home of a Kyrgyz mosque, a Kyrgyz shop and many gers.
The first thing I noticed was the quite high number of men strolling around as if they were searching something..which led to an interesting discussion with the English teacher as I mentioned it.
I found out that all that men do is getting fire"wood" (which consists of small roots of even smaller bushes that grow an hour's walk away in the mountains) for the day and that's it. No work available, nothing to do, but a culture that is extremely patriarchal. All the housekeeping as well as taking care of the children, cooking, milking the animals, making butter and so on is done by the women. So all that is left to do for the men is nothing....as there is no work. The climatic situation in Alichur is very harsh, they don't have any precipitation all year long. Just wind, sun and again wind. In winter the temperature drops to -40 with a strong wind blowing over the plain. There is no vegetation (a tiny bit beside the small stream), so their animals go in one of the side valleys everyday where they also get the hay for winter from.
Everyone is poor and their possessions are very limited. No electricity since the fall of the Soviet Union, no telephone, no running water...and there's no hope or whatsoever in sight.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the village had a main generator that provided electricity, but even if it 's still working, they couldn't afford the petrol it consumes (40 L per night), as the general income here is from 0 to 50 US$ (a teacher's wage) a month, with petrol costs of 1 $ per L.
It's a very sad place to be, yet the people are so hospitable and open.
Alastair had to leave the very next day, but we others (the Swiss-Australian tree cutter Simon, Raoul, the French piano teacher and me) stayed for 4 days in this barren wasteland.
We shared great moments with the family and learned a lot about life there, including what they eat...
Rice with potatoes, potatoes with noodles, noodles with rice....and all sort of dairy products made out of the milk of their 2 yaks, which give 24 L daily!
Another scary experience or discovery was the practice of hygiene there....
AS the weather isn't really friendly and the food lacks a certain balance, quite a lot of the people are having a cold or a permanently running nose. So one day I sat in the house and ate (better: filled my stomach) with some rice/potato/noodles and was witnessing the father as he wiped his nose in the towel next to the basin where they wash their hands in. Just to make sure you understood, the towel is normally used by everyone to dry their hands AFTER washing them, so I am pretty sure that none of them knows anything about hygiene or illness prevention.
I tried to tell them, but the problem is ignorance...I got an answer like: We are Tajik, we've always done it like that, don't worry about us.
Sometimes it seemed to me to be in a different time, far back in history.

Well, I could tell many more stories like that, just ask me...

Let's come back to how we spent our time there. We went to a lake called Yashil Kul (Yashil means green, Kul = lake) which is located 3800m above sea level and really a nice spot, just behind the little village of Bulunkul. This backwater is some 20 kilometer away from the main Pamir highway in on e of the side valleys and features the only big grassland in the surrounding. That's where the people of Alichur go in autumn to get their hay.
The lake is an amazing site and even has a sand beach and warm springs at the Northern end. Unfortunately we didn't make it till there, so bathing was limited to a foot bath due to the low temperature.
Around the shore, there are some plants that endure the salty ground and an astonishing variety of insects and amphibians. You can even find fishes in the water, small ones though.

After the day at Yashil Kul, we spent some more days exploring the life in the village and just relaxing, before we hitchhiked further to Murghab, the biggest town in the Eastern Pamirs.
Despite the name "Pamir Highway", one is wrong assuming that there's much traffic...
Sometimes there's no more than 5 cars a day, sometimes there's a whole delivery of minibuses from China on its' way to Dushanbe.
We had to wait 3 hours until some petrol trucks on their way to Kyrgyzstan took us in. I was driving with a Kyrgyz guy and we had a nice conversation in basic Russian about the difference of life in Kyrgyzstan and up here in the Pamirs. He also stopped at the unbelievable beautiful Ak Balik Tschasma (White Fish Spring) which is a big funnel of 10 m diameter and clear turquoise water somewhere in the vast but empty landscape dotted with Kyrgyz gers and horses.
After two hours' driving, we stopped in a ger restaurant to eat, it was the coolest truck stop I've seen on all the highways I traveled :-) They fed us mutton with onions, bread and tea.
Soon after our lunch break we arrived in Murghab, a uncomfortable
a ger in Alichura ger in Alichura ger in Alichur

many families have one next to their house (at least in the Kyrgyz side of the village)
and ugly place next to plain full of beautiful turquoise streams.
Murghab is the bas for the Eastern Pamirs and has all the infrastructure one needs up here, electricity, a bazaar to stock up your food, basic restaurants, a registration office, a travel agency run by a NGO, a Soviet style hotel and even some guest houses catering backpackers and bikers.
I checked in the hotel for a mere 2$ per night, including a 3-bed-room, electricity, a water basin on the ground floor and a disgusting two-holer behind the "hotel".
We explored the sad town, in which old metal parts and empty water tanks are all over the place and reminds on of the glory days when Murghab was still an outpost of the Soviet Union, next to the border of China. On the street, I met old friends, a Swiss couple I've been staying with in Khorog 10 days earlier and we had a pleasant evening with them and an American aid worker who was also staying in there guest house (Murghab also featured cold beer for us :-).
I intended to stay 2 days in the town and go exploring the surrounding by a rented bike, but Michael, the American, knocked a small tour group together for the next day.
The Swiss (the couple and Simon) and the French had to leave for Kyrgyzstan, so I joined the group for the day trip.
So the next morning, 6 of us headed towards the small bazaar to charter a minibus for the day in order to see a lake and a small village next to some ruby mines.
The lake wasn't close to the beauty of Yashil Kul and was infested by mosquitoes (on 4000m!!! --> also a result of global warming, believe it or not), so we headed straight towards the small town called Rangkul, passing the old border sign of the Soviet Union (Granitsa SSSR).
The settlement itself was so desolate and sad, with an adjoint mobile home camp of Chinese truck drivers and a small hospital exhibiting hygiene-education posters. But the people were so warm-hearted and it didn't take each of us long to be invited in a family's home. They served some good meal without telling us, that we actually ate Marco Polo sheep, an endangered species, just living in the Pamirs and not far from extinction...we even saw one sheep running up the mountains on our
after the "bath" in the streamafter the "bath" in the streamafter the "bath" in the stream

a "bath" after weeks!!!
way back, they're enormous animals with an even more enormous twisted horns. The people even played the guitar for me and we had some delightful hours spent in the company of those people who really live at the end of the world.

Then, suddenly some people start to bring up rubies and among them some quite beautiful pieces (small though) and asked if we want to buy some.
After a lot of bargaining, everyone spent some small money for small rubies out of the mines next to Rangkul. That was really something :-) Michael and I decided to hunt down some more Rubies in Murghab the next day. So there we were, secretly bargaining (it's forbidden to buy or sell rubies there) with old market women on the bazaar over a box of small red stones.
In the end we were really happy of our acquisition and got away with some quite nice ones, they also offered us a big one of a beautiful color, but we didn't want to spend 50$ for it, so we left it.
Next morning, me and Michael, who lived some months in Kazakhstan (and speaks Russian) as an aid worker, headed again towards the bazaar to arrange our lift towards Kyrgyzstan with a stopover in Kara Kul(Kara means black, Kul = lake), a lakeside town some 70 km off the border.
We found a nice party in a small Russian jeep who were on their way to Osh in Kyrgyzstan and gave us a lift till Kara Kul, not without warning us of the difficulties of finding an onward lift from there....
Anyway, I had no choice, my Kyrgyz visa was only valid starting the next day, and the lake looked so amazing, that we were happy to be here and frankly spoken, I had worse hitchhiking spots.
So we checked in a home stay, a nice family and told them right away to fire up their banya, that we can take a shower (a banya is a Russian sauna). After lunch, we wandered along the shore of the amazing lake, whose colors are just incredible, with the background of the high, snow covered Pamir peaks (up to 7000m) it's nearly to beautiful to be true...
The "town" itself is far less interesting, just another sad settlement of ducked houses out of clay bricks and a small military garrison guarding the Chinese border fence that is just 100 m next to the road and separates the two countries. We enjoyed the banya, a good dinner and interesting discussions before we wanted to start over the next morning around 6 o'clock. Unfortunately, the guys in the jeep were right and we sat the whole day next to the street without any car passing by. In the afternoon a jeep of diplomats (maybe Pakistani or Afghani) passed by, but didn't take us...really bad behavior in this country!
Well, as we had no other choice, we talked to the only person with a car in the village, a border officer who was willing to take us to the Tajik border with him when he goes on duty, at five o'clock in the evening.
But he wanted 20$ for the short drive, it was outrageous, but as I wrote, we had no choice...otherwise we would have to pay a fine for overstaying our visa.
So off we went to the border. It is a weird place, just below a mountain pass of 4700m or so, a military post, where the soldiers live in big old water tanks converted to dormitories.
The next problem was how to get
Yashil KulYashil KulYashil Kul

the "green lake" - though it looks more blue to me...
to the Kyrgyz border, which is at least 15 km from the Tajik border post, so after trying to persuade our officer to drive us a little further in the no man's land, he refused and we started walking.
The scenery was serene, but it started to get cold and we were already prepared to camp somewhere, when we passed a house and hoped for support, but the people there were as helpless as the surrounding mountain ranges, they even insisted on the fact that it's a 50!!! km walk to the Kyrgyz border...
We continued walking and before it got dark, a minibus from Khorog to Osh came slowly down the mountain slopes and luckily took us in.
We went with them to the border post, which was still some 30 km away from the next settlement, Sary Tash (a town located at the crossroad of the road to China and Tajikistan), so they were so nice to bring us there. We arrived totally exhausted and half frozen (the minibus had a shattered window) in a guest house in Sary Tash and spent our first night in Kyrgyzstan, not after profiting of all the amazing goods they sold in
sand beach on 3800msand beach on 3800msand beach on 3800m

who climbs higher to get sunburned at the beach?
the shop and restaurant there...water melon, Snickers, chocolate, lemonade, eggs, etc...things we've already forgotten during our time on the Pamir plateau :-)
Next morning we got up and our jaws dropped when we looked around....the mountain ranges around Sary Tash created the most beautiful mountain backdrop we've ever seen in our life...
With this scenery in the back, we headed towards Osh, a 130km or 7 hour drive into the Fergana Valley, the fertile Uzbek homeland in the heart of Kyrgyzstan. We hitchhiked with a 70 year old driver, his grandson and a living sheep in the trunk. The road was bad, but not as bad as the Tajik ones and after crossing a mountain pass, the weather changed a lot and the temperature increased significantly. After 7 hours and a short lunch break in a Kyrgyz ger, where we had Kumis, the Kyrgyz specialty out of fermented mares' milk, we arrived safely in Osh and found our way to a nice hotel where we stayed in a room with a shower and running water!!!
The civilization had us back...

Additional photos below
Photos: 31, Displayed: 31


Ak Balik springAk Balik spring
Ak Balik spring

"white fish" spring....a very beautiful sight
a yurt-restauranta yurt-restaurant
a yurt-restaurant

just next tothe Pamir Highway, catering mutton....
a yurta yurt
a yurt

many Kyrgyz live in this part of Tajikistan
fuel - highly protectedfuel - highly protected
fuel - highly protected

dried yak dung for heating and cooking
playing for meplaying for me
playing for me

better than their VCD-player...

25th October 2007

i am so jealous dude ! u got so many great photos ! :)
25th October 2007

Wonderful trip!
Little brother: Having such a wonderful journey with you. Thank you for letting us vicariously travel and feel this journey with you. Keep us in the journey...maggie
14th January 2010

I'm so happy I found your blog here :) I can't wait to experience all that by myself. Some say it's a dream, some say it's a nightmare, I chose the first option and now, I live here in Tajikistan !! I can't wait the spring to enjoy the best weather and have the same adventures and scenery as you :) take care and keep on sharing adventures with us :)

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